By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
Country music is a notoriously cut-throat business. However, Nashville has never been as brutal as TORN HEARTS, the intense new horror film from actor-turned-director Brea Grant. Abby Quinn and Alexxis Lemire star as Jordan and Leigh of Torn Hearts, a struggling country duo that just can’t quite make it to the big time. When fate intervenes and they’re granted a private audience with music legend and famous recluse Harper Dutch, played by Katey Segal, Torn Hearts believe the once-in-a-lifetime meeting could be their break. However, Harper has her own twisted agenda that will turn Jordan and Leigh’s musical dream into an inescapable nightmare.
With TORN HEARTS, Grant’s third horror film, the filmmaker gives audiences an unflinching glimpse into the ageism and sexism inherent in show business. Campy, gory, darkly funny, and surprisingly thoughtful, TORN HEARTS blends elements of Southern Gothic with Sunset Boulevard’s themes of jealousy and talent in decay. We recently spoke with Brea Grant about the film and her ongoing love of horror.
What attracted you to this project? Was it the music or the horror or a little bit of both?
It’s a wild script. It combined a lot of things I really like. I love stories about women. I feel like I get a lot of scripts for women who are teenagers or younger women, and this was exciting because it had a part that was a juicy role for someone older than that. I’m from Texas, so I think that just thinking about these sorts of very specific Southern stories was really interesting to me as well. So lots of things, but mostly it was because it was country music and horror, and I had never seen anything like that before.
Do you consider TORN HEARTS a Southern Gothic story, and how do you think it fits in with that kind of cinematic and literary tradition?
You know, people have been saying that, and I didn’t think about it as much as a Southern Gothic story. I like Southern Gothic stories. For me, I was exploring [themes like] “never meet your heroes” and questions about the entertainment industry and its relationship to women. But it also happens to be set, obviously, in this old Gothic mansion. And I can see why people think of it as that, but for me, I felt like it was much more of a story that crossed a lot of different genres. Maybe that’s one, and I just didn’t even ever acknowledge it.
Yet, thinking about the history of country music from Patsy Cline and Hank Williams to the recent passing of Naomi Judd, the genre has a long history of real-life tragic tales and dark subject matter going back to things like 19th-century murder ballads. Why do you think there haven’t been more country music-themed horror movies? It just seems like a natural combination.
It really does. Country music is dark. Like you said, there’s a darkness to it. It’s people wearing their hearts on their sleeves and talking about the things that we end up putting in horror movies. So I think it’s a natural pairing because there is such a darkness to that world and the things that people are singing about. I think we were fortunate because we got to put country music into the movie. The last song we did feels to me like an old-school country song. You know, a ballad, in this sort of spiritual way that I feel like country, especially old country, really does. I don’t know why there’s not more. I think there should be. I mean, we end up setting a lot of horror movies in the South, but a lot of times, I feel like we’re not being very kind to Southern people, which I take offense at! So I would much rather see movies that sort of honor these traditions instead of using them as interesting fodder for background for a horror movie.
More broadly, what attracts you to horror? This is a genre that you’ve worked in a few times now.
Yeah. Many times. I started as an actress in the industry in horror movies. One of my first jobs was a horror movie, a movie that no one will ever see. But then one of my first big jobs was Rob Zombie’s Halloween II. That was a very interesting shoot. I had a great time. I think because of that movie, I was introduced to the horror community. I had been a fan before that. I’ve always liked horror movies, so it made sense for me to do horror movies. I thought that would be fun as an actress. After doing that movie, I got introduced to the horror community where I started getting to talk to people like you and various people who are journalists in that world. I made some friends with some journalists and started making friends with filmmakers in that world. And the fans in that world were just really nice. And making more movies was really nice. So it just felt to me like a wonderful place to continue to make things. Also, I think it’s hard for me to make things outside of the genre; My brain just goes to the genre. I think it’s a fertile ground for telling new and exciting stories. So I’m drawn back to the genre no matter what I do.
We’ve touched on the crumbling house and its gothic implications that play such a big part in TORN HEARTS. Of course, that brings to mind some other movies. Abby Quinn’s Jordan specifically calls out Sunset Boulevard in the film, but I also detect a bit of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. What were some of your inspirations in bringing TORN HEARTS to the screen?
It was funny. When I first read the script, I was like, the house can’t be too on the nose; The house has to have a lot of personality, but it can’t be, when they walk in the door, that it looks like a place where a horror movie would take place. These women are not dumb. They’re smart women. So they would be able to overlook certain things, but they wouldn’t be able to overlook other ones. I think at one point, there was a reference to Grey Gardens. And I was like, “No, it’s not Grey Gardens. It’s different than that.” But the more I developed it, and the longer I was there, the more I started leaning into the Grey Gardens, the Sunset Boulevard feel of it all. I felt like it just started to make much more sense.
Visually, I feel like it just worked a lot more to have a lot of clutter, because you have this woman who’s been living there for 20-plus years by herself, and it sort of is like what would happen to this house? I don’t think it would be falling down; I don’t think the ceiling would be caving in. For me, it felt like she would still have all this memorabilia; She wouldn’t have touched a lot of stuff, but you’d see evidence of her throughout the house, the places that she actually did live in. The living room? I don’t think she’s there very much, so it’s a bit cleaner. We kept talking about Alice in Wonderland. Once they go through the gates, the world changes, but then the more they get into the house, the scarier the house gets, and the more things start to fall apart until they get into the center, the belly of the beast, this hidden room in the house where a lot of the end takes place.
Visually, [I wasn’t drawing] as much from those movies. I think the movie I ended up drawing on the most was Misery, which visually is not similar, but emotionally, I feel it has a lot of similarities because it looks at fandom, and it also has a really great performance. So for me, I ended up drawing a lot more from that. I wanted to look into these movies where everything seems okay on the surface, but then, as we go forward, it’s like a frog in boiling water. Things just get worse and worse until they don’t even realize what they’re in for.
Why was it important to tell the story from a strictly female perspective?
Well, the script was written that way. I did not write the script, and I can’t take credit for its brilliance. I mean, it was one thing that drew me. I’ve been in the entertainment industry a long time, and I think watching what happens to women in the entertainment industry, who give it their all but then eventually age out, especially actresses – the people with the camera on them. As these women age out, I see a lot of men around me age in. There are these great roles for men in their 40s and 50s and 60s, whereas a lot of the greatest actresses of our time, you don’t see them. They won’t work for 10 or15 years because there aren’t good enough roles for them. No, no, no good roles. So that felt important. And it felt important to show the industry from these differing perspectives. I feel like all three women have different perspectives when it comes to how to achieve their dreams, and none of them are wrong. I think all of them actually go about it in a way that makes sense for the way that character has been pushed into the industry. So it was important for me to not only show it from these female perspectives but also to not judge these women.
The film ratchets up the tension until the plot just explodes into a graphically violent climax. What is the function of the violence and gore in the context of the story? Why did you choose to go so over-the-top at the end?
I don’t know how much I should give away! Well, this is a spoiler, but the one thing I never wanted to show was Harper Dutch being killed. I didn’t want to show the aftermath of her death. So you actually don’t see that part because I felt like I wanted to – this may sound weird – but I wanted to honor her and the way that she was fighting for us. She was tired of being [an] idol; She was tired of the way she had been used. I didn’t want to use her. And that was just a personal thing.
For better or for worse, I love movies with a lot of action. I love movies. I love violent movies. I love Tarantino. I love Edgar Wright. I just rewatched the John Wick movies. I love movies with a lot of big action beats that have these cool fight scenes and these violent moments that also have a lot of tension in them. It was just interesting to me to try to do that. There’s a scene in the middle of the movie where the two younger women, Lee and Jordan, get into a fistfight. That was something I talked about a lot with my stunt coordinator because he was like, “Oh, yeah. Women don’t fight the same way as men.” In the street, women often fight dirtier. Women are more likely to grab hair, you know, go for the soft spots, because, generally, we have less strength. We have to get a little bit more creative with our fighting. When we were crafting that scene, I wanted to show all of the anger that these two have been holding against each other. Also, I wanted to show it crafted in such a way that these are not two professional fighters. These are women who are scrappy, and they’re scrappy, not only in their industry and the things that they’ve done to get to where they are, but they’re scrappy in this fight. You see them sort of just really going at it in a violent way, which we often don’t get to see in movies.
At this point in your career, do you consider yourself primarily a writer, a director or an actor? Are you considering moving into writing and directing as your main career?
Yeah. I kind of have. There’s a long lag time on movies. So I think even by the time I had made that decision, I still had movies coming out as an actor. And I feel like the last few movies I did as an actor were very satisfying. I’m very proud of them. It’s just not where my heart is right now. I will always act for my friends or for the people that I feel loyal to or if something really great comes along, but I just feel like, at this moment in time, I’m much happier when I am behind the camera or writing.
Are you going to stick with the genre? At this point, do you consider yourself a horror director?
How many movies does one have to direct to be a horror director? Like I already am? This is my third film, and I feel like all of them are in the horror genre. None of them are, I think, probably as straightforward as someone in middle America might think of as horror, but I think the horror community likes a more nuanced label when it comes to horror. I think the horror community embraces things that don’t feel as straightforward to somebody else that isn’t as familiar with the genre. So yeah, I’m gonna stay doing genre work and things within the genre world. I’m definitely drawn to sci-fi; I’m drawn to action. All of my movies have a lot of comedy in them, and I feel myself getting pulled in that direction as well, but I think I will always be in the genre universe in some way, shape, or form.
TORN HEARTS FROM BLUMHOUSE TELEVISION PREMIERES JULY 19 on EPIX.